TENNESSEE HISTORY Classroom
FULL HISTORY STORIES


Dr. Miles V. Lynk


Tennessee is a word that bring to mind countless images of pioneers, rural life, and simpler times. Stereotypes that are responsible for attracting millions of visitors to the area each year giving rise to a booming tourism industry that capitalizes on such images as David Crockett, Andrew Jackson, and the early American pioneers. This singular portrayal of the region does have a downside in many circles. The most noted being its power to eclipse the stories of accomplishments belonging to Tennessee minorities and in many cases relegating these individuals to scarce footnotes in American history. You will not find any lengthy passages on them in school history texts, but their lives had such an impact on American life that the effects are still seen today.
There was a different side of life in Tennessee history not found in the brochures – one that starts with a black country doctor in Jackson, TN.



Miles Vandahurst Lynk was born near the small town of Brownsville, TN on June 3, 1871 in Haywood County. He was the first-born son of former slaves who made their living off of a small family farm. At the age of six, Miles Lynk’s father was killed in an accident and the young boy was forced to take on adult responsibilities in helping his mother on the farm.
In spite of the hard times, Lynk’s mother insisted that her son attend the rural black schools in the region at least five months a year. She spent much of her time tutoring him herself. She covered the gaps in his education with what books she could acquire and the young boy became a voracious reader. They made enough money from the farm to hire a private tutor and Miles’ was able to study advanced academic subjects and gained an able education.
In the summer of 1888 at the age of 17, Miles Lynk took a job teaching in the black rural schools in order to save money for continuing his own education. Lynk decided at some point in those years that he wanted to study medicine and, as it was in those days, he began as an apprentice to Dr. Jacob C. Harriston in his hometown of Brownsville. Under Dr. Harriston’s tutelage, Lynk learned much from the physician and soon applied to medical school.
In 1889, he traveled to present-day Meharry Medical College in Nashville, where his prior work with Dr. Harriston paid off and the teenager was able to not only pass the entrance examinations with extremely high marks, but also shorten the time of his college career by a year.
In those days, a medical college’s curriculum consisted of mainly lectures that prepared entry level physicians to begin practicing medicine. Meharry Medical College was established after the War Between the States to train black physicians, and, although young, was earning itself an excellent reputation as an educational institution.
Lynk’s natural aptitude and high scores quickly caught the attention of school founder Dr. George Whipple and faculty member Dr. Robert Boyd, who aided the young man in his rigorous course work. Of the thirteen students who entered the college with Lynk, the Brownsville native graduated in 1891 second in his class.
The 19-year-old physician decided to start his practice in Jackson, instead of his home town of Brownsville. With just over 10,000 people living in the city and 40 percent of that number black, Dr. Lynk felt it would be a good city to establish himself. His friends had tried to warn him away from the city because of racial unrest, but Lynk was determined to begin his practice, which was near his hometown of Brownsville and close to the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church his parents had been so devoted to in his youth.
With the opening his practice doors, Lynk became the first black physician in Madison County. Dr. Lynk received a warm reception from Jackson’s white physicians and encountered few difficulties. In fact, his biggest problem with his new practice was in winning the confidence of the black community, who were skeptical a black physician could have the same skills and training as his white counterpart. It took a some time, but soon Lynk’s reputation overcame the skepticism and garnered him enough patients to build a lucrative practice in the city.
In the first year or two, Lynk noticed the growing black medical community was being overlooked by the American medical establishment. Although there was only 909 black physicians out of the 10,391 practicing in America at the time, no publications or journals were available that spoke of black patients’ case reports, medical schools, or personal chronicles of other black physicians that could prove helpful to practicing doctors. It left America’s black physicians on their own in handling difficult cases and, with no networking in their ranks, new treatments for traditionally black medical conditions were rarely mentioned in American medical publications.
On Dec. 1, 1892, 21-year-old Dr. Miles V. Lynk formally established the first national medical journal for black physicians. The Medical and Surgical Observer focused on black medical issues and offered the latest information available on treatments and professional ethics.
Dr. Lynk oversaw the journal’s entire operation. He wrote articles, edited its contents, and sold the advertisements, which financially supported the monthly publication. Dr. Lynk also reprinted articles of professional interest from the nation’s leading medical journals in The Medical and Surgical Observer. The Tennessean proved to be a good promoter, which led him to establish a small publishing house in Jackson, Tenn. The business’ various projects also provided some much needed employment to blacks in the community.
While he produced numerous publications at the facility, The MSO was his flagship publication. Dr. Lynk used its pages to introduce black physicians in the South and across the nation to each other. He constantly asked for articles and participation from them in his editorials. Using phrases like: "Remember, every man knows something that somebody else doesn’t know," Lynk’s informal style attracted articles from doctors in Washington, D.C., North and South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, and his home state of Tennessee. While racial segregation in medicine was a hard fact of life in those days, the publication never overtly discussed it and, instead, concentrated itself on being a professional medical journal supplying much needed information on black medical enterprises across the nation. Its pages were open to the subject, however, and many articles appeared discussing the fact that whites-only hospitals were often closed to black physicians and doctors being forced to surrender patients to white surgeons for major operations.
Educating black physicians was another strong focus of the publication. Dr. Lynk wrote of the nation’s emerging black medical schools and offered appraisals of their training programs. Of the six black medical colleges in American at that time, Lynk always kept a close editorial eye on them and constantly lobbied for tougher standards in their curriculums. His most noted professional cause as an editorialist was the need he saw for a national black medical organization and he constantly called for the formation of one.
For eighteen months, Dr. Lynk’s Medical and Surgical Observer published 17 editions and pioneered black medical journalism in America. Some of the original articles published by the nation’s black physicians later found there way into the leading medical journals of the day and helped establish the first professional network for black physicians.
While letters poured in from doctors across America lauding Lynk’s efforts to organize black physicians, no one would take the lead and Lynk was too busy to take on such a task as by himself. When the monthly publication ceased distribution in 1894, Dr. Miles Lynk continued his efforts to organize America’s growing black medical community. His cause received a much needed boost when the American Medical Association rejected the membership application of black physician Dr. J.R. Francis.
The Tennessean used the rejection of Dr. Francis to raise interest in forming a black medical organization. A year later in Atlanta, during the Cotton States and International Exposition of 1895, Dr. Miles Lynk got his chance at the event to realize his life-long goal. Although the event was held during an era of intense racial problems in the region, the organizers of the Exposition had set aside a "Negro Building" as a way to show off the best of the South both black and white. Booker T. Washington delivered a speech during the exposition on self-sufficiency and individualism that would propel him to national prominence as a leader in the black community. One of his most noted remarks in the "Cast down your buckets where you are" speech was his reference to race relations in the South, where he stated:
"In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the five fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress."
While many would later say his speech was a conciliatory gesture to segregation, the words at the time helped inspire blacks to form their own organizations and establish themselves in what had once been "white-only" professions. Lynk seized on the speech and lobbied black physicians at the Exposition to support his idea.
On the afternoon of Nov. 18, 1895, which was designated as "Doctors’ Day" at the Exposition, a group of 12 black physicians met in the First Congregational Church in Atlanta. There Jackson, Tenn. Doctor Miles Lynk and 11 others from across the South formed The National Association of Colored Physicians, Dentists, and Pharmacists. Meharry Medical College professor Dr. Robert Boyd, who Lynk regarded as the acknowledged leader of the black medical profession, became the association’s first president. Dr. Lynk took the post of Vice President.
Like the pioneering efforts with The Medical and Surgical Observer, Lynk knew the promise of a national black medical organization. The medical groups provided valuable opportunities for physicians to meet with colleagues, hear scientific papers, get advice, and discuss difficult cases. The organization struggled at first, but soon grew into a vital part of the black medical community. It eventually changed its name to The National Medical Association and became a fixture of not only black physicians, but the American medical community.
Lynk’s contributions to black Americans didn’t end with the field of medicine. He always remained an active part of his community in West Tennessee serving as a Sunday School teacher at Collins CME Church where he was a member and publishing numerous works on black literature, history and cultural life. He would also go on to publish two more monthly magazines "Lynk’s Magazine" in 1898 and "The Negro Outlook" in 1919.
In 1900, he founded and established the University of West Tennessee – a black university headquartered in Jackson that taught medicine, dentistry, and law. Dr. Lynk remained a firm believer in continuing education and used his life as an example. He eventually earned a law degree and passed the bar exam in Tennessee. Lynk also went on to found the Lyn-Krest Sanitarium in Memphis and relocated the university in the city in 1907.
The University of West Tennessee produced many successful graduates, but was forced to close its doors in 1924 for financial reasons. During its ten year run, however, the University boasted numerous graduates in dentistry, law, medicine and nursing. Many would go to become recognized leaders in their chosen fields and practice in numerous states and foreign countries.
In 1942, one of Lynk’s papers entitled: "Medicine, Fifty Years Ago And Now" was read at the annual meeting of the National Medical Association, which illustrated the advancements of black physicians since his early days as an intern. Lynk later served as Dean of the School of Nurse Training of the Terrill Memorial Hospital in Memphis. He continued his medical practice. In 1952, Dr. Miles Lynk was honored by the organization he helped to found when he became the ninth recipient of the Distinguished Service Award from the National Medical Association.
On Dec. 29, 1957, the pioneering physician passed away at the age of 86 in Memphis. In his lifetime, Dr. Miles Lynk had overcome numerous obstacles and accomplished many goals – leaving behind a legacy that not only aided the career of countless black physicians but would also help reorganize medicine throughout America.
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The Tennessee Historical Commission has erected a historical marker near Lynk’s boyhood home in Brownsville to commemorate his life and service and it is, sadly, the only such monument in Tennessee that honors his pioneering accomplishments.
Lynk’s pioneering publication "The Medical and Surgical Observer" would go to be recognized as the first black medical journal in America and Lynk himself recognized as one of the top 50 black medical pioneers in U.S. history. Among the numerous letters he received from physicians during the MSO’s publication, none was more valuable to him than a letter he received from Dr. Monroe A. Majors of Waco, TX who wrote:
"I have before my gaze the pride and boast of every Negro doctor, a journal of our own , a counterpart of ourselves ... a real living proof of capacity in science and art. In a brief way, allow me to congratulate you for pluck, energy, and forethought."
Lynk was a part of a black renaissance that took place in the South in the late 19th and early 20th century and spawned some of the nation’s most influential black leaders. Even though colleges, universities, and professional organizations were closed to them, the books were there and they took every opportunity to educate themselves and establish a presence in American society. The Universities and professional organizations that they would found seeded a vibrant black culture in America – one that would grow in strength and provide the nation with some of the best educational facilities in the world.
One such institution is Tennessee’s Meharry Medical College in Nashville. Since its founding in 1876, it has dedicated itself to training black physicians, dentists, and other medical professionals and is historically regarded as one of the best such institutions in America. The early leadership of its president Dr. Robert Boyd had a galvanizing effect on black medicine throughout the nation. The college can now boast that nearly 40 percent of black physicians and dentists practicing in America are Meharry graduates. Their alumni represents 43 states, the District of Columbia, and 22 foreign nations. In 1988, the college developed the first Institute on Health Care for the Poor and Underserved and now publishes a quarterly journal on the subject to aid practitioners in that field. They have recently placed emphasis on the development and training of black biomedical research scientists in order to close the gap in medical research fields.
In addition to the many magazines and papers to his credit, Miles V. Lynk also authored four notable books: "The Afro-American School Speaker and the Gems of Literature", "The Black Trooper or Daring Deeds of Negro Soldiers In The Spanish-American War", "Pictorial Review of The Great World War", "Lynk’s Simplified System of Record Keeping for Busy People", and an autobiography in 1951 entitled; "Sixty Years of Medicine, The Life and Times of Dr. Miles V. Lynk".
Only a few copies of Lynk’s autobiography were ever published, but it is the only definitive work on his life and career. In his autobiography, Lynk commented on his efforts in medicine and journalism when he spoke of "The Medical and Surgical Observer’s" somewhat abbreviated life span and its impact on medicine. The words explained a phenomena that is truly American in tradition and Southern Appalachian in context.
"It was a pioneering effort," Lynk said, "and, as with all pioneers, you clear the trees, throw up the highways and make straight the paths. Their tasks are hard because the average person hasn’t caught the vision."
Others did follow in the MSO’s footsteps, but it took years before one would gain such attention and recognition as Lynk. In fact, until the development of the National Medical Association and its medical journal 20 years later, no one attempted such a nationwide endeavor as did the Tennessee physician. In a 1941 tribute to the aging physician, they wrote: "Among the outstanding members of the medical profession, Dr. Miles Vandahurst Lynk occupies a unique position. His active life may be embraced in five brackets, to wit: a pioneer, expansionist, educator, author, publisher, and civic leader."
The National Medical Association, which started with 12 black Southern physicians, now represents more than 20,000 black medical professionals. The organization has become a thriving part of the American medical community and a leader in the field. Many noted physicians would lead the organization over the years, including several Tennesseans and one from Knoxville. For more information on the NMA and its history, you can access their Internet site at www.nmanet.org